Visions of the Future

The Distant Past, Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow

by Robert Heilbroner

Number of pages: 144

Publisher: Oxford University Press

BBB Library: Technology and Globalization

ISBN: 978-0195102864

About the Author

Robert Heilbroner is the Norman Thomas Professor of Economics, Emeritus, at The New School for Social Research. He is the author of over twenty books, among them The Worldly Philosophers. He lives in New York City.


Editorial Review

In a brilliant conclusion drawing together the threat of nuclear blackmail, global warming and the growing commodification of life represented by video games, voice mail, and VCRs, Visions of the Future issues a call to face the challenges of the twenty-first century with a new resolve strengthened by the inspiration of our collective past.    

Book Reviews

“In this short, stimulating essay, eminent economist Heilbroner argues that humanity's expectation of a future measurably better than the past became widespread only with the rise of capitalism and its handmaiden, technology, beginning around 1700.” — Publisher’s Weekly

“It is not comfort that one takes away from this stimulating little book. It is instead a sense that one has watched a series of stop-action photographs of human history and that one has seen nothing less than the span of civilization from its dawning to whatever form of twilight awaits.”— New York Times

“Even though he doesn't provide a bang-up payoff at the close, Heilbroner offers a wealth of dividends along the way. A worldly philosopher's provocative broad-brush perspectives on what the morrow could bring.” — Kirkus Review

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Wisdom to Share

All contemplations of the future—magical, religious, social, even scientific—exist at some deep level to deny, or at least to come to terms with, the terrifying prospect of death's finality. The scientific concept of time undoubtedly has attributes that can be described apart from life, but the need to construct the idea of a "future" would be meaningless without the tacit assumption that humanity will be there to inhabit it.

Civilization arises first in communities whose situational characteristics lend themselves to the "caging" of their individual members, and perhaps of even greater importance, of the economic, social, ideological, and military organizations by which the larger societal entity is defined and defended. As such, posthistoric society is best conceived not as a freely undertaken movement upward, but as a forced adaptation to the boundaries of organized collective life.

Poverty is not a certain small amount of goods, nor is it just a relationship between means and ends; above all it is a relation between people. Poverty is a social status. As such it is the invention of civilization.

There are two aspects in which Yesterday differed fundamentally from the preceding Distant Past. The first is that it introduced the notion of progress. The second is that its unique dynamism was not enjoyed by all societies.

The absence of a scientific ethos did not prevent the Chinese from producing cast iron fifteen hundred years and the modern horse collar one thousand years, before the West; from far exceeding Europe in the accuracy of its clocks; or from inventing and using paper for books and money (as well as for lavatory purposes) while Europeans were using parchment, coins, and unsanitary sponges.

Visions of the future express the ethos of their times, and we must remind ourselves, to begin, in the ways in which the visions of Today differ from those of the Distant Past.

It is enough that we can see the future as containing such imaginable possibilities. Openness and potential, without assurances of outcomes, are our substitutes for Yesterday's bright hopes for Progress and our consolations for Today's more knowing anxieties.